A devastating shoulder injury led Kerri O'Brien to powerlifting—and to the top of the podium.
Kerri O'Brien, CSCS, is an executive vice president at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). She's an avid marathoner, triathlete, and biathlon competitor, but it wasn't always that way. In her former life, she was a powerlifter. Not just any competitive powerlifter, though—she was the first female MVP at the World Championship meet for the Natural Athletic Strength Association. And it all started with the day she was told she could never do gymnastics again. Here, she tells her story of how powerlifting taught her the healing power of strength training, her wild success at lifting really freaking heavy weights, and the surprising fitness feats that followed her powerlifting domination.
I had been doing gymnastics for about seven years when I first hurt my shoulders on the uneven parallel bars—my favorite event. I was 16, and they basically told me I could never do gymnastics again. It was like, "You had a good go at it, but your body is done." It was the 1980s, so at the time they didn't do MRIs or anything to diagnose the injury. But I had torn all three muscles (the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoid) in both shoulders. I really did a great job of destroying them.
At that time, they didn't really do surgery or even send you to physical therapy. So they basically just said to ice and rest to let it heal. I dabbled in other sports for a while, but I couldn't do anything where I had to reach overhead. And it just seemed like my shoulders weren't getting any better. When I would sleep at night, they would actually fall out of the socket and in the morning I'd have to crack them back in. At this time, I was already very much in love with anatomy and kinesiology, so it dawned on me: Maybe if I got the muscles around my shoulders strong enough, they could keep the bones in place. This was just my own logic. My brothers would go to the gym and lift all the time, so I figured, "Hey, I'll just go work out with them."
Bitten By the Lifting Bug
Once I started lifting weights, the pain subsided almost immediately. I wasn't finding myself waking up in the morning with my shoulders out of the sockets or having to say no to doing things because I was worried about them. So I kept working out with my brothers. I didn't realize at the time how strong they were—I was just trying to keep up with them. At 16, they were bench pressing 350 or 375 pounds, and I'm thinking, "All right, I have to catch up to that." So there I am, benching 200 pounds and thinking I'm really weak because I'm comparing myself to them.
It wasn't until I went off to college at Arizona State that I realized just how strong I was. In the rec room with all the other college students, I realized that there were no other girls lifting weights even close to what I was lifting. Someone finally said, "Hey, you should compete!" and I thought, "Okay, why not? I'll give it a shot."
Before that day, I didn't know that powerlifting was a sport. I'd heard of Olympic weightlifting because I've been an Olympic junkie forever, but I really wasn't interested in doing the snatch or the clean and jerk (two Olympic-style lifts). When I found out that powerlifting is the bench press, squat, and deadlift, I thought, "Oh, I can do those!" (If Olympic-style weightlifting is more your jam, you need to follow these fierce female athletes, stat.)
My first competition was local and it was really fun. People there were asking me to be on their powerlifting teams, but this was in the early '90s and, as you can imagine, there was a lot of drug use happening. I decided to continue on as an individual lifter because I didn't want to be associated with a team where people might be doing that—but it left me with one big disadvantage. When I would go train, the amount of weight that I was lifting on the squat was over 400 pounds, and on a bench it was over 250 pounds. These are some pretty big weights, and without having a team, you had to find people to spot you who you could really trust. Because if anything went wrong, it could get really dangerous really quickly. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to find plenty of people who were willing to come spot me, whether it was people at Arizona State, those who were fans of powerlifting, or just people who were really excited to watch me move forward in the sport. It certainly exposed me to camaraderie and trust—if I went to the gym and my spotters weren't there, I just couldn't train.
I kept training and competing, and progressed really quickly through the sport because the weights that I was pushing were just so much heavier than what had been done in the past. At my first meet, I think the female closest to me did a 140-pound bench press and I was doing 245 pounds.
The Life of a Powerlifter
The hardest part, though, was eating. I tried to set new records at every weight class from 136 pounds to 182 pounds, so my body weight fluctuated about 45 pounds. I know it sounds silly, but when I would get past the 162- to 164-pound mark, gaining weight was so hard. I was eating about 8,000 calories a day. That's so much food. It took a lot of discipline to make sure that I was eating enough, gaining the weight I needed, and lifting heavy enough because you're not trying to gain fat, you're trying to gain muscle mass. When I knew I was going to drop down a weight class, that felt much easier. I would drop down from 8,000 calories to 4,000 calories and shed the 15 pounds that needed to go in a week.
Through all of this gaining and losing weight, I never really worried about my how my appearance changed with powerlifting. I thank my parents and my past coaches for helping me develop that mindset, as the idea of being too big or looking different just never bothered me. I had all the confidence in the world, and for me it was about being the best I could be. Plus, from being obsessed with physiology I knew that even if I got really big for a moment, it wouldn't be like that forever. You get to manipulate how you look. (ICYMI, we have some choice words for anyone who hates on girls who lift—and that includes The Bachelorette's Chad.)
I also wasn't really worried about injuries. I learned that you control your environment, especially when it comes to weightlifting. If you're playing soccer and you're out on the field and the grass is wet, or you cut differently or someone crashes into you, you can't control that and you might get hurt. But in the gym you can control everything almost 100 percent of the time. If you don't feel like you should lift 400 pounds that day, you say no. If you feel like 400 isn't enough, you're in charge of bringing it up to 410.
There were two organizations that I competed for: the ADFPA (American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association) and the NASA (Natural Athlete Strength Association). Both of those, unfortunately, have merged or gone away now, but those were the two that were drug-free. They tested us all the time, which I really liked, because I liked the idea that everyone I was competing against wasn't using anything to enhance their performance. After about two years of powerlifting competitively, I made it to the NASA World Championships. They'd had female champions before, but at that competition, I was the first woman to take home MVP, meaning pound-for-pound I was the strongest person there. (More powerlifting fitspo, right this way.)
As I got the gold and stood up on the podium while the national anthem played, I felt incredible—but I also knew I was ready to retire. That was my last competition.
The Next Chapter
After I hung up the powerlifting gloves, I went to the complete opposite side of the fitness spectrum and went on to run marathons, triathlons, biathlons, and adventure races. It really grew my love and respect for human physiology. A lot of times people say, "If you're a runner, you can't do something like powerlifting" or vice versa. But you really can. Through training, and discipline, I went from a gold medal in powerlifting to running the L.A. Marathon. Now, I of course didn't win the L.A. Marathon, but I sure could run it.
Running was a new, positive experience for me. With lifting, you're indoors and it's very regimented—everything is timed perfectly, from sets and reps to the rest period in between. With running, your own head talk is very different. Before I only needed to psych myself up for literally two seconds, whereas now I had to keep talking myself through more than 26 miles. (Side note: This weightlifting playlist will help get you extra psyched for those heavy pulls.) Just when I thought, "What else can I learn about myself?" running taught me a whole new side to my personality that I grew to love and develop.
A few months ago someone asked me, "Why don't you go back and take all those powerlifting records at your current age level?" It was an interesting thought, but one that I don't think I'll actually pursue. I don't know if I want to go back into that competitive frame of mind, but I love seeing how the female powerlifting community has changed since I competed. It's just so thrilling any time you have women inspiring each other, motivating each other, breaking records, and training at a different level than they would have trained if they were alone or with men. Because we are stronger in numbers, no matter what gender. And that is what I'm all about lifting up these days.
Feeling inspired to powerlift? Check out this young woman's story and then check out her app, which is specifically made for teaching women to strength train.